you should check for wall space,
items that may trip someone,
straps can help with alignment,
blocks to press between the knees to work the quads and
tennis balls to increase foot flexibility.
a very sturdy chair,
the ability to use the wall for poses if possible,
will have a mat and may use it for some poses if they can get up and down from the floor.
A mat. I like students to try different kinds of mats during balance poses to challenge them. So having thick squishy mats, as well as very thin and medium thickness mats is helpful.
For kneeling poses, a squishy (I cut up a cheap yoga mat that was quite thick) pad for people with knee issues is helpful.
You can also fashion a wedge for people that have wrist issues from the squishy mat pieces.
Blankets can be very helpful during winter as they lay on the floor in savasana.
Chairs should be more substantial than flimsy folding chairs. These students are in better shape but still need something that is stable.
Yoga and Diabetes
(transcript of podcast -Changing the Face of Yoga – Yoga and diabetes)
Stephanie: We have a wonderful guest Rachel Zinman and Rachel was diagnosed with Type 1 l a diabetes in 2008 at the age of 42.
She’s been doing yoga since the age of 17 and she still practices and she’s teaching other teachers and beginners alike in workshops trainings and retreats.
Internationally she is a mother award winning musician and published writer.
Her blog on yoga for diabetes was listed as one of the best blogs for January 2016 by Diabetes Mind. She’s produced several other articles for other publications on diabetes.
Thank you Rachel for joining us today.
Rachel: Hi. It’s great to be here.
Stephanie: Great. I looked at your blog and your web site. And I was very taken by a statement that you made in your video which was that when you first realized that you might have type 1 diabetes you were sure that you could cure it with your healthy lifestyle which of course included yoga.
And yet later on you had to start taking insulin. And I do something similar I’m sure that yoga is going to stop me from having all the awful things that happened with age. It doesn’t. So what does that say about yoga. We think that it’s almost a cure all for everything.
Rachel: I think it’s a bit of a misinterpretation of of of the meaning of yoga. You know that we see that as some sort of a process or a path and this is something that I really had to come to terms with in my own life after the diagnosis was that yoga isn’t really a process. Yoga is actually the nature of who we are and to understand the depth of the meaning of the word yoga. Yoga means oneness it doesn’t mean steps along the road and understanding what Oneness is.
You know so for me it actually took me to study more. The Upanishads and the traditional meanings of yoga through the through the sacred texts rather than just you know my interpretation of it as a as a physical practice. But having said that I think yoga really does, as a practice, enable you to rejuvenate the body and support the body to really you know be as well as it can be. Considering that you’re living with a chronic condition or you’re dealing with aging or anything like that.
Stephanie: Could you first explain I type one diabetes I I sure that we all have general information about it but it would be good to be more informed I think before we go on with the conversation.
Rachel: Explanation of Diabetes OK so type 1 diabetes is an auto immune condition. They don’t really know how it comes about. I mean this is the biggest sort of mystery in terms of this chronic illness because they don’t know how it happens why it happens. And there really is still no cure. But basically what happens it’s an auto immune disease which attacks the insulin producing cells in the pancreas which are called beta cells. So we all have these cells which produce insulin and insulin is used to bring the energy from food which becomes glucosate. The energy has to enter into the cell in order for the body to utilize the glucose and work properly. So these beta cells are very very important because they produce the insulin. Now what happens with type 1 diabetes is that something starts attacking the cells. These beta cells and they start to die and then you no longer produce insulin your pancreas is still working. But you’re not producing the insulin. And so the build up of glucose in your system just increases and increases and increases. And when you have more glucose in your system it sort of acts like a corrosive and it starts to you know affect the small blood vessels in the body it starts to affect the organs and you know creates a lot of complications .
Stephanie: OK. Thank You. That’s very helpful. You talk about insulin sensitivity. What is that and how does yoga address that?
Rachel: [00:05:23] OK so insulin insensitively that’s very interesting because you know type there are type 1 diabetes and then there’s type 2 diabetes. now type 2 diabetes is slightly different in that it’s not an auto immune condition.
It’s actually a condition where the body has gotten to the point where it resists the insulin that’s being produced so the body still produces the insulin. But the cells resist the insulin. As I said you know the insulin is like a little door which allows the glucose to come into the cell. But if the body is resisting the insulin the cell becomes a shut door and you can’t get that insulin into the cells. So first of all is or you know increasing insulin sensitivity is all about stopping that insulin resistance.
So the muscles are amazing because when the muscles are moving and working they act like insulin and they reduce the amount of sugar that’s in the blood. So when you get your muscles active it increases your sensitivity to insulin. And then the cells are more likely to take the insulin into blood cells so that then they can help to reduce the level of sugar in the blood.
Stephanie: That’s really helpful. Thank you. I teach seniors. I’m amazed that in 10 years I’ve been teaching how much diabetes has increased in that population group. Didn’t see it very much at all and now I will have 2-3 students in class that have it. It is becoming much more prevalent. So this is a very important podcast I believe. You said that your yoga practice really helped you with the stress of having Type 1 diabetes. Can you expand on that statement. Is that one of many benefits of your goal for diabetes or is that the best one.
Rachel: Benefits of Yoga for Diabetes Oh gosh there’s so many there’s so many benefits. I mean you know like I said insulin sensitivity increasing your sensitivity to insulin is a benefit. your sleep habits really are changed so you sleep better when you do yoga because again it’s you know releasing the stress out of the system. You know it’s a great stress reliever. It’s helps promote weight loss because you know you’re basically focusing on your breath and moving and breathing and moving is fantastic again for you know just getting the heart rate up. It improves memory.
It just increases your flexibility and your strength. I think those just exercise in general is just so good for you.
It helps in that way. I mean you know any benefits of yoga are going to help you if you’re living with any type of diabetes really.
Stephanie: I watched a video of one of your students it’s really fascinating what you’re doing which is that you’re working with people who have diabetes and this individual had type 1.
I don’t know if you’re working with people who have the other type but she had type 1. You actually worked with her one on one too really create a practice that was good for her given her diabetes but given what kind of body and all of that. And then she got a video that helped her. But what I really like about it was that when you first worked with her so she knew how to do it.
I think there is a little bit of danger in videos with people don’t quite know what to do with yoga.
I was very impressed that you did that as a two-step process. She seem very very happy with that. Are there other students that you have that you can tell us about.
Rachel: Yeah. I mean it was it was a trial that I did because you know I am actually just a yoga teacher and I don’t normally work. Well I haven’t worked just with people who live with diabetes. I mean I’ve worked with people for years just training them to be teachers and you know and also working one on one. That was something that I did in New York I was a private yoga teacher for five years just running all over the city teaching you.
So but this was a very specific process that I did and I worked with three or four people.
Actually I only worked at that time with type 1 and I started with a questionnaire. The questionnaire was asking them about you know how are they coping managing with their diabetes. What is their emotional relationship to their diabetes. How would they like to improve their relationship. It was a very extensive you know personal questionnaire. And then we went through in our Ayurvedic questionnaire to determine the type of constitution that they had what kind of sort of emotional habits mental habits physical habits and then just looking at body type. And then once I’d done that I said I thought OK I want to create a sequence for them. So then I recorded the sequence and then we met and we went through the sequence but we didn’t just go through the sequence once together. I met with them every week for weeks and weeks and weeks so they would have they would meet with me and we’d sort of tweak the practice and go through the practice and then they’d have the sequence on video and say they could do it at home. But what was essential was for me to really make sure that they were physically aligned and that they were safe during the practice.
So I work with someone who was a little bit you know maybe bigger in bones. And so you know a stronger type and so that person had a very sort of a much more vigorous practice with backbends. Then I worked with someone who was actually dealing a lot with very high blood sugar levels who wasn’t on insulin who needed a more calming more restorative practice.
And for her that we added a very specific meditation, a very specific breathing practice to kind of slow her down and calm her down and get her more relaxed. And that was you know really beneficial to her.
We also worked with a guy who had a lot of physical strength that he was dealing with a lot of unstable blood sugars. They were sort of you know he would drop really low in the middle of the class or he would you know go really hard and that was the other reason why it was really important to work with him one on one and not just through online. So the story because you know I knew to be right there to help him or to say hey let’s check your blood sugar you know let’s make sure it’s still OK. And then he didn’t have to have a juice or something like that to bring his blood sugar back up. So I think when you’re working with people with diabetes it is important to be physically with them. Also just touch is so important and adjusting and just making sure that they’re safe because it’s very calming.
I think you can do the online thing and I do do it but I want to have a connection with the person first I agree with you are.
Stephanie: I think it’s really important to have that connection first especially although I haven’t had any one that had any problems in my class who had diabetes. But I would I would certainly get nervous if I were trying to teach older people just on a video. It’s very difficult thing to do.
I really admire that you put so much time into developing these very unique practices for each person and I think that’s really admirable because I’m sure it took a lot of time and effort.
Rachel: It was actually a lot of fun. I just want to say that I think yoga teaching is a really fun thing to do. And you know it’s if you love it it’s a total joy you don’t mind putting in the time.
Stephanie: I agree. I said on a podcast where I was a guest that yoga people are good people.
You said there are sleep issues with diabetes. Could you explain that and what you’ve been doing with yoga to help with that.
Rachel: Sleep Issues with Diabetes So you know I think depending on the type of diabetes you have I think this is something that just comes up as you know especially if you’re dealing with unstable blood sugars you you’re either up at night because you know you’re going into a low, your pump is going off, you know a lot of people use pumps to deliver the insulin. You can over deliver the insulin you can under deliver the insulin.
You might have a just lot of stress associated with it. So sleeping through the night is not necessarily a given. And you might wake up sometimes you might have overdosed overdosed too much you know taking too much insulin and you’ve got to stay up and eat. Or you can be woken up at 3:00 a.m. And have you know your pump goes off and it’s like you’re on a you’re on a low and you’ve got to get up and eat drink some juice or take some glucose tabs or you go to eat. Often there is a bit of a joke that people end up you know freaking out and eating the whole fridge and things like that. So that’s something that happens. But just in general it’s not easy. And also if you’re older you might be going through something like menopause that really affects your blood glucose levels as well. So they could be very up and down and you can be waking up all night with that. So I think you know the big thing about yoga is that yoga is about the combination of breath and movement. It’s not just physical exercise in the sense that you’re just moving the body you’re actually also taking the breath and marrying it to the movement so that it’s a continuous flow. And when you do that it literally calms the nervous system and brings you out of that fight or flight which is what’s waking you up all night is the body isn’t naturally relaxed, you’re in your fight or flight.
No they say that we’re supposed to spend 80 percent of our time in the relaxed part of our nervous system the parasympathetic nervous system and we’re supposed to spend 20 percent in fighter flight so that we have all the energy available to us that we need if a tiger is chasing us or if we need to get out of a stressful situation. But of course in our modern day society with all the stress that’s placed on us physically, environmentally, emotionally. We spend 80 percent of the time in our fight or flight. So that is obviously going to spill over into our sleep time. So what yoga does by marrying the breath to the movement is it calms the nervous system down and it trains the body to kick in that parasympathetic nervous system more often. And I think that’s what really helps promote sleep.
And also I think you know another thing is that yoga practice is not just ha it’s not just physical. They call it ha ta yoga. It’s also ta it’s mood. So that’s our forward bends. It’s the stretching it’s you know that it’s restorative You know it’s all those fancy names that we’ve given the yoga where we’re kind of just lying around and relaxing the part of the practice that’s like.
Stephanie: Which is a really good hard practice too I think.
I watched your videos. I recommend that everybody watch them just because they’re absolutely beautiful of you doing I believe it was for legs and they were just they were absolutely gorgeous. You move so beautifully.
But are those the kinds of movements that you would be giving to someone you had to help them move the muscles so the cells are more open to the glucose.
Rachel: you know that so depends on the person.
And of course that practice that you watch. It’s very it’s a quite a strong advance practice so not everybody could do that.
I have to be honest and often you know when I’m sharing a little video like that on Facebook or you know on my blog or whatever it’s a little bit like OK it’s a challenge it’s like a teaser or you know like OK you know this would be this would be great if you had that flexibility with some wrote straightaway and said look I can’t do that.
And I was like yeah I know.
Strengthening the Legs And so I think any there’s some very simple things you can do to really keep that strength you know to work the legs. And one of them is that you know a basic posture like Warrior II. You can do things like chair at the wall. I think I actually did that in the sequence. You can do things like just pulling up your legs so that your heel touches your buttocks and you’re stretching the front of your thigh muscle and then you’re just straightening your leg and lifting your leg out in front of you so that you’re you know working the fine muscle. So stretching and strengthening and you can even do some of those things lying down like drawing one you know knee in towards you and hugging the shin and then straightening the leg while you can bicycle the legs. Know there’s just so many things that you can do simply lying down or seated in a chair that will also work those thigh muscles. So one of my goals is once I’ve sort of teased everybody and gotten everybody excited by just showing them something totally you know that could be challenging is also to just create something very very simple as the alternative to that as well. And it all comes down to time when it comes to doing stuff that people can see online is that it takes time to record those things and and put it all together so it sort of looks you know palatable.
But yeah there’s just lots and lots of ways that you can increase that insulin sensitivity where you don’t have to be doing some sort of full on athletic practice.
Stephanie: One other thing that I always do is I work on the quads, the thighs. Those are your independence muscles when you’re older and those are the ones that allow you to get up and down from sitting, in the toilet, out of bed. And if you don’t have a strength in those legs you will have to have some kind of care. So I do a lot of those things too. And it’s good to know that it flows over and really also good to people with diabetes because I will have people who have diabetes in the class. Thank you for giving the poses and will be grateful to have those poses if they have diabetes. You do workshops internationally; do have workshops to teach teachers about diabetes? You said they do workshops and training internationally. Do you have workshops on how you teach people. How to teach teachers about diabetes or are those workshops on something else.
Rachel: Well this is my plan is to eventually be able to share with yoga teacher is how to support people who are living with diabetes.
I’ve written a book. The book’s going to be published in October 2017 this year. It’s not a book for yoga teachers but I think yoga teachers would love the book because it really explains diabetes from the Ayurvedic perspective which is the sister science of Yoga. It looks at you know how to work what that person needs that gives a very specific sequence for what that person needs. So it can be used for people who are living with diabetes Type 1 and Type 2 and it can also be used by yoga teachers. Eventually from the publishing of the book and stuff I would like to have a ongoing seminar or a workshop very specific because I’ve even just had someone approach me and say look you know I have a lot of people with diabetes who are coming to my class and you know I’d love to have a private with you about how to how to work with them.
And I’ve also I’m also working on a webinar for you of Australia on that topic as well and I’ve written articles for them.
You know this for me this is a project that you know I was diagnosed in 2008. I was in denial for about six years. I refused to believe that I even had diabetes. It was a huge shock for me and I didn’t really want to accept it. And then finally six years later I said OK yes it’s true it’s real it’s happening. And then from that point I started to slowly kind of realize that I might have something to offer to the diabetes community. And then from there I wrote the book and now working with clients who have diabetes and then slowly slowly slowly so that’s one of my new next goals is to have sort of physical workshops where people can come and learn from me about you know what is the disease.
How does it work how can we help them. And that’s all sort of coming along the road.
StephanieI understand. Yes. What’s the title of the book.
Rachel: The title of the book is Yoga for Diabetes: how to manage your health with yoga and Ayurvada.
Stephanie: So everybody in October 2017 you can get this book .
Rachel: Yeah. It’ll be released worldwide through distribution and the publishers are Monkfish publishing.
Basically if people go to my blog www.yogafordiabetesblog.com that there’s information about the book. There it just says yoga for diabetes book and people can click there and get on the mailing list and find out all about what it’s going to be released and where and how they can get it.
Stephanie: I learned so much today. I am going to switch you here a little bit. I really appreciate you talking about your journey with diabetes. And you said that it took you what I believe six years to really accept that you had it. Is that a common response when someone finds out that they might have not only diabetes probably a chronic condition of any kind.
I think I was lucky because it was such a slow onset. So for a long time I had the you know the blood tests and I had sort of it told me that I had you know my body was telling me was telling the doctors that I had diabetes but I wasn’t having symptoms and because I was asymptomatic. It was much easier for me not to accept it because you know my blood sugar levels were not high they were sort of pretty stable and I was kind of controlling it.
But then it got to the point where my body started I started losing a lot of weight. I started getting thirsty. I was up all night you know urinating. I started having a lot of fatigue. And then it was like OK now this is not good. Oh and the big thing was that I started having neuropathy in my hands which meant that my hands were tingling and buzzing all the time that I was touching things.
And I went to and I still thought oh maybe it’s B-12 deficiency you know I was just in this big denial thing. And then I went to the neurologist and he said well hang on a minute your blood sugars are really high and now you’ve got the beginning of nerve damage and I think you better you know do something about it. So you know a lot of people when they have adult onset type 1 diabetes it comes on very quickly like all of a sudden they lose a lot of weight, they start urinating, they have all the fatigue, they feel like you know their body feels like sludge. Then you know they go to the doctor and it’s like wow you need insulin straight away. But because that didn’t happen to me because it was a very slow onset. It was much easier for me to avoid it. Maybe in the type 2 community and I don’t want to speak for the type 2 community because I’m much more keyed in with what goes on with type 1. I think people you know they get they get a bit of a wakeup call they get shocked because their blood sugars are a little bit higher than they go on go on a diet. They start exercising and their blood sugars come back down because the insulin is getting into the cells because they’re. You know increasing their insulin insulin sensitivity through the exercise. So it’s much easier for type 2,s to kind of to OK well I’ve got things under control.
Maybe then they go a little bit longer without checking their blood sugars or not worrying so much about it. And that’s why there’s such an emphasis in the type 2 community for people to keep an eye on their blood sugars and to really not stop testing and see you know is my blood sugar going up again. Do I need to go back to the doctor. Do I need to keep an eye on this whereas in type one because you are insulin dependent. You’re keeping an eye on your blood sugar like 15 to 20 times a day you might even be wearing a monitor on your arm to make sure that you know your you know your blood sugars are steady where you know things like that. So it really depends on the type of diabetes and the modicum of control that you have as to whether you’re going to be in denial long time or not.
Stephanie All right well I can understand that it if you really don’t have symptoms it’s kind of hard to believe it’s just a test. OK so I just want to reiterate that if you want to explore any other things that we’ve talked about today you go to www.rachelzinmanyoga.com or her blog www.yogafordiabetesblog.com
And she’s also on Facebook. If you have questions and want to explore anything else, please go to those addresses. I really want to thank you. Rachel has been a great guest and very helpful and I’m sure a lot of people including myself have learned a lot from her today.
Rachel: Thanks so much. It’s been really fun to be here.
Does Teaching Seniors makes Yoga Teachers Nervous?
Having talked to many yoga teachers about teaching seniors, there is usually one overwhelming emotion for those that have had little experience teaching seniors – uneasiness. Yoga teachers are trained in anatomy and physiology and so know the “average” anatomy of a potential student but they also instinctively know that seniors’ anatomy and physiology will be different. But they often don’t know what that means or how to address it in a yoga class.
Yoga teachers are right; a senior’s body is going to be different than the “average” body and it is quite possible that each senior’s body will be different to other seniors in the class. A senior’s body will reflect how it was used throughout its life. Someone that has spent their whole life in hard physical labour will have a different body at 60 years old than one that worked in an office for the past 40 years.
Because of this fear, I have seen inexperienced teachers curtail their senior classes’ poses to very small movements- e.g., while sitting, lifting one knee up slightly – while slightly extending the arms. Seniors are quite capable of doing yoga although perhaps not all of the poses as they are originally taught. But common, though modified, yoga poses are quite possible in a senior yoga class. And these very small movements are not very interesting to students – the majority of which are quite capable of doing much more. Although safely is the first consideration in any yoga class, “dumbing down” the poses to little more than lifting your leg slightly or a slight side bend is not helping the seniors nor will it result in a successful class that students want to attend.
So one thing that a yoga teacher might focus on is body awareness; with a variety of body types and issues, the individual student needs to be very aware of how their body works. Questions like how and why is a particular stretch painful, or why it feels good, or what does the student discover about their body that they might like to work on are questions teachers can ask to begin the process. The goal is seniors’ physical self-awareness to become more attuned to their bodies. As an example, teachers might ask their students to focus on how the muscles feel when the student stretches them: what kind of stretch is it – in the belly of the muscle, close to the joints, how much release do you achieve if you stay gently in the pose, is there any discomfort, can the student breathe easily while in the pose? All of these questions lead to a deeper awareness of how this pose is being performed by their body and how it feels in that moment. Older students may not feel anything in their body and need cues and help to bring attention to how their body is responding.
Concentrating on each student’s individual anatomy is important because the student will learn to find the point in the stretch or the pose where they are challenged but not uncomfortable. The teacher is responsible for getting these concepts across so that the student can find the point that is increasing their abilities but is safe and not likely to cause pain or injury. This allows the student to slowly work on increasing flexibility, range of motion, and building strength.
Other issues that may occur are when poses cause the student to feel nervous, nauseated, or dizzy. With some very common conditions like high blood pressure, some poses are contraindicated. People with high blood pressure can feel quite ill if their head is below their heart. Therefore any pose that puts the head below the heart should be modified e.g., a version of downward dog can be done using a wall so that the head stays above the heart.
But teachers do need specialised knowledge to know those conditions that require modifications. The student may tell you if something doesn’t feel right but there are conditions that have no symptoms until something serious occurs. So inexperienced teachers have every right to be nervous; seniors are going to demonstrate significant variations in how they do poses, students may be dealing with a variety of conditions that require modified poses and sometimes students are unaware of conditions that they have thereby leaving the teacher with less than adequate information. Preparing yourself to teach seniors does require additional training and knowledge but it is very rewarding as seniors embody the ethos of yoga – joining the mind and body to improve the overall emotional and physical aspects of their lives. If you have comments on this blog or wish to know more, contact me through the contact page on this website.
Do You Have Heart?
I talk to a lot of yoga teachers who want to or are teaching older students. Although those who have experienced teaching older students authentically feel that it is a privilege to teach seniors, the overriding emotion for everyone when I talk to them is fear – that they don’t know enough – that their lack of knowledge could lead to injuries or worse. This is a genuine concern as generic yoga training does not have the time to delve with any depth into the issues of the aging body. However, the real issue is do you have the “heart” to teach older students.
Teaching older students is significantly different from the average class of 20 and 30 year olds. These older bodies have been used for 50 plus years and that use has written itself on the body in stiff and swollen joints, old injuries, and the uneven strength of muscles, etc. You will not in general find the lovely young flexible bodies of a younger class; you will find great variations and unfortunately almost everyone will be dealing with some common conditions and diseases of aging. So being cautious about teaching seniors is legitimate.
But the real difference is what the older person wants from a class. They are not interested in complex asanas that twist the body in multiple ways. They in general will have no ego about their physical practice, they are instead just trying to perform the asana, perhaps modified, but making the attempt. They usually don’t care what kind of clothes they have on as long as they are comfortable and the clothes allow them to move. The yoga teacher will usually have to slow the class pace and perhaps make an effort for everyone in the class to hear him/her as hearing loss is quite common among older people.
So teaching older students will not give you the satisfaction of your students excelling at difficult asanas, losing toxins in heated rooms, or becoming much stronger and fitter through yoga. If these are your goals as a yoga teacher, you probably would not be happy teaching older students.
In general, over 50’s decide to attend a class because they understand that they are at risk of losing abilities if they don’t continue to move their bodies. They are not looking to work from simple to complex asanas but are looking for someone who has experience or knowledge with the pain of arthritis, the difficulties of living with insomnia, the understanding of isolation. The yoga teacher who believes that they want to be their students’ friend as well as their teacher, recognises that a class can be a social gathering as well as improving or maintaining fitness, and believes the full spectrum of yoga (breathing, relaxation and meditation) should be taught in a class will have the “heart” to teach older students. Listening to their stories (which are usually quite fascinating), understanding and appreciating their courage to live with pain and grief daily, and accepting them where they are and knowing that possibly this is the best fitness level that they can attain is the perfect yoga teacher for over 50’s.
Yes there are risks teaching older students. Teachers and students should know the risks to make an informed choice. If the student decides to take the risk, (and these are adults and should be given the choice of making a decision that includes risk) they should be made aware of what may be the consequences. I have been teaching over 50s classes for many years and have broad experience and education in the area. I can help you gather the knowledge so you understand the risks of what you are likely to face in an older class and how to communicate those risks to your students. I can mentor you through the stages to build a rewarding practice so that you build your classes and expectations that are suitable for this age group.
But I can’t give you “heart”. If you 1) genuinely want to teach seniors, 2) have expectations appropriate for this age group and 3) believe that these older students have as much to teach you as you have to teach them, then you are definitely on the path to being a senior yoga teacher with HEART!
Teaching The Beginning Stages of Meditation
Yoga is more than poses. It also includes holistic guidelines to improve the body, mind and emotions. One of the most important parts of yoga is learning how to meditate. Meditation is broken down into stages: the first of which is to improve the mind’s ability to focus on a thought. The first stage of meditation teaches the student to learn how to focus the mind on a single thought. The largest challenge for a novice meditator is to quiet the mind. We can’t change the past and we can’t know the future but we do have control over the right now.
Focussing the mind on one object in the right now and trying to maintain that focus begins with the novice meditator training the mind to stop jumping from thought to thought. This is often called monkey brain in yoga where thoughts just whiz through the mind often without any way to control them or even think deeply about each thought. Training the mind to slow down and only concentrate on one thought at a time is difficult, but the following guidelines are good for the novice meditator to begin the process:
1) Have a ritual that signals the body that it is time to meditate. Always starting with a certain sequence of breath techniques, or sitting in the same position in the same room, and/or putting on the same music are all signals to the body that it is time to meditate and to relax.
2) Perhaps integrate beginning to meditate with svasana; allow the body to completely relax and learn how to ignore the information from the senses. At that point of relaxation, it is a good time to start a basic meditation exercise.
3) A critical step at the beginning when learning meditation is to learn to focus the mind on one thought. But this process may be very different for each student. Try different types of focussing techniques and let the student find the one that is most beneficial for them. Some different techniques are:
- a) Mantras: have people develop their own mantra or they can use some common yoga mantras. Saying the same sentence or series of sentences as long as it has meaning to the person can bring them internal focus and quiet the mind.
- b) Visualisation: students who learn visually and are adept at observation may feel best with a visualisation cue. For example, visualize a structure like a table that has a light source on it. They then build a very detailed picture in their minds of what the structure is, what the light source might be, and what are the surroundings. Introduce all of the senses: what does the object feel like, what color is it, are there any odours (like a candle burning), can you hear anything are all helpful for the mind to really focus on the picture being built. There visualisations can be quite detailed which engages the mind on one idea.
- c) Cues: senses or kinaesthetic A cue in the room like a lighted candle that people focus on or a certain music that is played each time, or perhaps a walking meditation (in which students walk in a large circle concentrating on how their bodies are moving and what each step feels like) are other ways to quiet the mind and begin the focussing process.
- d) Setting goals: Have the student concentrate on a goal they wish to attain. Again using all of the senses, how would they feel if they had this goal, how would they know they had reached the goal, what would be different in their life if they attained the goal, why do they want to reach that goal take the student deeper into the thought and begin the training for focussing.
Students have to be reassured that although this is a difficult process to learn and it will take time to eventually train the mind to focus on one thought, it is doable. It is important to remind students that when a stray thought enters the mind as they try to focus to not engage with it, but just let it float through, attach no emotions or judgement to it. Let the stray thought gently disappear and bring your thought back to the single idea that you are trying to focus on. This can happen many times during a session as the novice meditator starts to learn how to focus and it is perfectly normal.
There are more steps in learning how to meditate but the beginning step of learning to focus, quietening the mind and learning how to really think about a single thought is often very hard for students. Let them learn these steps over multiple classes with lots of encouragement. Meditation can have a very beneficial effect on the mind and the emotions as people begin to focus and allow themselves to slow down mentally and emotionally.
The GURU/TEACHER TRAP
Yoga is a system thought to be 3000 to 5000 years old; it is a social system to improve the individual as well as society. Therefore it has a long tradition and much history which has had a numbing effect on the current practice. This numbing effect comes about in a variety of ways.
1) The weight of teachings overwhelms the thinking of the current practitioners. We are taught to thank our teachers and our traditions continuously (that is one translation of Namaste) but that leads to not thinking at all! When obviously wrong and sometimes quite stupid things are taught by a “teacher”, the tradition is to accept it instead of actually thinking about it, challenging it and perhaps discarding it. So we end up with ridiculous sayings like “inversions make you think better – all that blood to the head is invigorating”. Yes like all that blood to your head is suddenly going to make you think better because you are upside down. Maybe that teacher mistakes feeling dizzy with thinking better.
2) Although a large part of yoga is to dismiss the ego and become one with the universe, nature, humanity – however one thinks of it, the guru/teacher system is open to abuse. There are unfortunately those that wish to be told what to do and not develop their own opinions and a guru/teacher model is very attractive to them. This naturally stokes the ego of the guru/teacher and if they aren’t ethical this can lead to a variety of abuses.
Choudbury Bikram, the promoter of hot yoga, was recently fined millions of dollars for sexual harassment and is currently fighting several other legal suits for rape and sexual harassment. I remember seeing an ad for Bikram yoga where a female is doing a full forward bend (chest to thighs, head to knees, fingers clasped beyond the feet) with Bikram standing on top of her back. Does this not ring some alarm bells about his opinion of women, submission, sexual harassment, etc.? So the signs were there yet Bikram is a quite popular form of yoga. Why would you follow a teacher/guru who sexually harasses his students and/or employees? There are other heads of certain schools of yoga who are being investigated for similar crimes; it is not something limited to Bikram yoga.
So the teacher/guru model can lead to very serious abuse and yet the whole yoga system is set up on this model. Would it be a less yoga if we encouraged spirited debate, tested these teachings with the bullshit meter, or called out sexual predators before accepting whatever was said.
3) The teachings of current gurus/teachers are based on thousands of years of teachings of generations of teachers. I think we should at least look at the provenance of the teachings. These teachings were developed almost exclusively by older men who were Indian over the last few thousand years. But most of the people who practice yoga in modern times in the West are female, they are from a Western Culture which at least in theory promulgates the equality of the sexes, and are of all ages. I had a teacher tell me that his guru told him to instruct females to lift up their cervix when doing a certain pose. My teacher didn’t know much about the female body but was willing to take the guru’s word who obviously didn’t know much either but both were willing to tell students to do it.
Obviously if the teachings were developed without regard to culture, gender, or age then there is no problem. But that is impossible since we don’t even recognise what we say and believe is determined by how we were raised in a certain culture. But if you understand the conditions under which these teachings were produced, then you can in an intelligent and thoughtful way accept those that do provide a path for becoming a better person and helping towards a better society in our current culture.
Just think when someone tells you something – being a yoga teacher or a guru does not mean they can’t be wrong!!
I have decided to continue my training by completing the 500 level of Yoga Alliance training. I’ve chosen Yogacoach for two reasons. I looked at several possible training offerings but I’m most interested in the therapeutic aspects of yoga so a syllabus that deals with therapy was my first requirement. Then I needed something that would let me continue teaching my classes and still take the course. That was the difficult part. (This particular course allows me to take most of the course in three weeks (in Bali!) and then three four day weekends within about six months.) I’m very excited about enhancing my knowledge of yoga. Most importantly, I can continue to teach my classes with that kind of schedule. If you are a solo teacher, it can be difficult to find time to do training or anything else that requires taking significant time from teaching.
First of all, I have rented a different studio for my yoga classes. It’s quite gorgeous with wonderful views. Now my students are saying how much better it is than the last studio. So even though as a teacher we are looking for certain things, we do have to keep in mind that students may not rate as highly what we think is important. And students may not let you know that they don’t like the space. So even though the last place had lots of wall space, the new place is much preferred by the students even though it is more difficult to find enough wall space in larger classes. The ambience of the studio is probably much more important to the students while we are looking at technical issues. So finding a studio that meets both needs can be a challenge.
I have returned from the first part of the training in Bali and I am very excited about the approach that was presented. It places asana as part of the system instead of the primary emphasis it has in many of our classes. The approach returns to the original focus of yoga to the teacher and student working together to reach the student’s goals. It looks at the student holistically: body, lifestyle, energy levels, and ability to find and implement new purposes while ridding oneself of old baggage. Something that everyone can use – I know I certainly can. I have three more training modules but I am very excited about implementing this new system of yoga!